Rugby players are likely to enjoy a happier retirement than our practitioners of comparable sports. They do not fall into a depression and even commit suicide, as former cricketers are prone to do in disproportionate numbers. Nor do they go into a decline and end up living from hand to bottle, as too many old footballers find themselves doing. On the whole, although there are exceptions - just as there are contented cricketers and prosperous footballers - rugby players go on to live happy and, usually, long lives.
The worst fate that can befall them is to be forgotten. It is surprising how the names of so many fine performers of 50 or even 30 years ago arouse the blank stare rather than the reminiscent smile. There are, I think, two reasons why this should be so, certainly in comparison to, say, cricket. One is that, although there have been many excellent writers on the game, rugby has never built up an entire literature, as cricket has. The other reason is that, unlike cricket, it is not susceptible to hard statistical analysis. The feats of yesterday are passed down instead through anecdote in the bar and the memory of folk.
The memory of Martin Johnson will last for many years, longer than that of most players on the contemporary scene. He will almost certainly enjoy a contented retirement. But in all the tributes to him that I have read, there has been a strong element of humbug.
Indeed, upon the name of "Martin Johnson'' being struck vigorously, the humbug-quotient has easily climbed the pole, rung the bell at the top of it and won a coconut, a china dog and a fruit bowl made of fake crystal.
For the truth is that Johnson has built his entire career on the intimidation of his opponents. True, he has been courageous as well. But it is easier to demonstrate that quality if you are 6ft 6in tall and weigh 18st 10lb.
I may say that I have nothing against him personally. Indeed, I have met the gentleman only once. That was at Twickenham in the 1990s, after Leicester (then perhaps a more overpowering team than they are today) had appeared in a cup final there. We were introduced by Bleddyn Jones, the radio commentator, ex-Leicester outside-half and former pupil of my old school in Ammanford. Johnson struck me as a perfectly affable cove even if one of few words.
These are not, however, qualities which he has always chosen to demonstrate on the field of play - either the affability or the taciturnity. He is certainly not one to avoid mixing it with the referee: verbally, I mean, unlike his Leicester and England colleague Neil Back, who pushed over Steve Lander at the end of the 1996 cup final after the latter had awarded Bath a match-winning penalty try. Back was slapped on the wrist with a mere six-month suspension.
Johnson's way of intimidating referees involves, by contrast, glaring at them in his usual fierce way and exploiting his position as a famous international. If I were a rugby ref (which thank the Lord, I'm not sir), I simply would not put up with it, whether from Johnson or, for that matter, from anyone else. In fact I remain astonished at the nonsense which referees continue to put up with, despite the enhanced status which has flowed from professionalism.
It is, of course, arguable that intimidation - of opposing players as opposed of referees - is part of the game, always has been, and that our teams had previously lost the initiative to those from the southern hemisphere on account of their reluctance to be rough. Matters changed with the Lions tour of New Zealand in 1971. It was there that the late Carwyn James, the gentlest of souls, coined that immortal instruction which has entered the language: "Get your retaliation in first."
But those who were on that tour claim with some plausibility that the New Zealanders were the more brutal, both nationally and provincially. They will cite as evidence for this state of affairs the notorious Canterbury match in which the first-choice props, Sandy Carmichael and Ray McLoughlin, were taken out of the tour completely. However, what is indisputable is that on the 1974 tour of South Africa, Willie-John McBride aroused his colleagues with the cry of "99", which at the time came as a great surprise to the Springboks.
My own estimate is that rugby is rougher than it was even 20 years ago, because the players are heavier, stronger and fitter and, not least, because there is more at stake. At the same time it is less dirty, because the game is faster and, one way and another, it is easier to see what the forwards are up to.
Johnson has never been a dirty player exactly. But at the same time there is no excuse whatever for taking a swing at your opponent just because he is your opponent or, sometimes, because he is a member of your own side. Still less is there any need to put your elbow into the ribs of a prone outside-half, for Johnson has never been one to adopt the principles of chivalry over his choice of a victim.
For myself I hope that, in the autumn of his days, someone now sorts him out - whether a brave referee or, preferably, another player who can throw a bigger punch than he can.Reuse content